1980's, 1985, 80's fantasy, 80’s Disney, 80’s movie, Aunt Em, beware the wheelers, billina, brian henson, chicken, claymation, cowardly lion, david shire, deadly desert, Disney, disney feature, disney film, disney movie, dorothy, dorothy gale, dr. worley, electroshock, electroshock therapy, emerald, emerald city, emeralds, Fairuza Balk, furnace, George Lucas, gnome king, gnomes, gump, Halloween, heads, jack o'lantern, jack pumpkinhead, Jean Marsh, Kansas, L. Frank Baum, magic mirror, mombi, mountain, Nicol Williamson, nightmare, nome king, nomes, nurse wilson, ornament, ornament room, oz, Ozma, Piper Laurie, puppet, puppeteers, puppets, Return To Oz, robot, royal army, royal army of oz, ruby slippers, scarecrow, scary, scary 80s movie, scary kids movie, scary moments, scary scenes, stone, stone statues, stop motion animation, stop-motion, switch heads, the gump, the land of oz, Tik-Tok, tin man, turned to stone, Uncle Henry, underground, Walter Murch, wheelers, Will Vinton, wizard of oz
Few know that one of Walt Disney’s unrealized dreams was to make an Oz movie he could call his own. There’s plenty of books in the series beyond the first and most popular one, and Walt bought the rights to them before they went into the public domain. He could take the material in any direction he wanted so long as he didn’t tread on MGM’s toes. The closest we ever got to seeing his vision was an episode of Walt Disney Presents where the Mousketeers “pitched” a musical called The Rainbow Road To Oz to their beloved leader. It was a perfect way to build hype for a movie…that never even made it past the planning stage for whatever reason. Since then Disney released a few Oz-themed song and story records, but Filmation was the first to make their own unofficial sequel. It starred Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minelli as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton as Aunt Em –
Wait, Margaret Hamilton was the actress that played the Wicked Witch of the West. What was it that she said at her most evil moment in the original movie?
Anyway, Disney all but sat on the Oz books until the 1980’s when the copyright on them was set to expire. Just like Sony with Spider-Man before the MCU came a-knocking, they rushed to come up with a movie so they could hold on to the rights for that much longer*. By a staggering coincidence, Walter Murch was interested in launching his directing career with a new Oz story. Murch is a legendary Academy Award-winning editor and sound designer, and this is his first – and as of writing this review, only – cinematic directorial venture. A pity he didn’t stick with it; based on what we got from Return To Oz he could have been one of the greats. That’s a hole not even three Oscars, a Nikola Tesla award, the 2015 Vision Award Nescens and two honorary doctorates could ever hope to fill.
Return To Oz was released in 1985, the same year as The Black Cauldron. And just like that experimental venture into the darker side of fantasy, it was a box office bomb that went on to develop an immense cult following. Some big names that have come out as fans include the Scissor Sisters, who wrote an entire song inspired by and named after the film on their first album, and no less an authority on the cynical side of fantasy/sci-fi than Harlan freaking Ellison. But why did it flop to begin with? Well, dear reader, there are a few reasons as to that:
1. Change of Management
Return To Oz was filmed as Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells stepped in to give Disney a much-needed overhaul. I’ve already discussed the pros and cons of their sweeping changes to the animation department, but live-action is a trickier subject. Whenever there’s a regime change at a major studio, expect certain previously announced movies to either get axed or rushed out to theaters with little fanfare depending on the new CEOs’ tastes. By the time Wells, Katzenberg and Eisner took over, Disney’s live-action features had gone from safe, bland “What would Walt have done” fare to edgier fantasy flicks, though neither routes had turned a desired profit. Return To Oz was the last of the latter category to be released; when it wasn’t the box office or critical darling they hoped it would be, it left theaters almost as quickly as it came and hasn’t been mentioned again since. It’s not the first instance of this sort of thing happening to great films (alas, poor Baron Munchausen) and it won’t be the last.
And this ties into…
2. Misaimed Marketing
Return To Oz was marketed as a straight-up sequel to the 1939 classic, so people came in expecting a lighthearted musical romp and walked out not knowing what had hit them. Unlike the other attempts at sequels that more or less followed the formula of the first film, Return To Oz is much closer in terms of plot, character and tone to the novels. There were complaints that it was unfaithful to the Oz stories, but as someone who’s read most of them, I disagree; if anything, Return To Oz is far more faithful to the L. Frank Baum books than The Wizard of Oz ever was, deftly combining elements from the second and third entries into a deep, cohesive narrative that still manages to tie into the first one. The only thing that even remotely links Return To Oz to The Wizard of Oz are the ruby slippers, which Disney paid a hefty fee to MGM to use. This makes the movie more of a spiritual sequel than a canon continuation, at least for me. If the original Wizard of Oz had stuck to the aesthetic and writing of the book it was based on, then this would have been a direct sequel; though I understand how difficult it must be to market a sequel to a version of a beloved movie that was never made.
3. Behind The Scenes Drama
With the amount of major set pieces, special effects and hands that go into making any film, it’s usually no big surprise if some drama breaks out. Shooting Return To Oz went over schedule and over budget, the script was rewritten many times to try to combat the darker tone, and Walter Murch’s clashes with executives nearly resulted in his firing. He barely kept his job through some divine intervention:
4. It’s Terror Time Again
If Ironic Disney Logo hasn’t clued you in already, Return To Oz has a reputation surrounding it – that being it’s one of those films that terrified an entire generation of 80’s kids. It doesn’t downplay the grimmer elements borrowed from the novels – hell, it bravely takes them even further. I only caught glimpses of Return To Oz on tv a few times though I somehow always missed the frightening bits; yet when I finally saw it in full in my teens, I totally understood why certain scenes would leave a few scars. But there’s no gore, nudity, swearing or terrible messages that would make this movie unsuitable for children. Like An American Tail, it has a likable set of heroes that you want to follow and there’s a happy ending, both of which make it easier to see it through. Despite how much I’ve gone on about what scared me as a child, I’m of the mind that kids should be exposed to a bit of safe darkness through their movies or shows to challenge them and make things a little more exciting. I mean, I grew up with this,
– and I turned out okay. Just ask my therapist.
Brace yourselves, folks. We’re heading down the yellow brick highway to hell. This is Return To Oz.
So the movie opens with a silent take on the Disney logo we’re all familiar with.
Right from the start we’re introduced to one of the main stars of the features.
No, not Fairuza Balk. THE SCORE.
David Shire’s score is a gdamn masterpiece. Not just one of the best Disney film scores, but easily high up on my all-time favorites. The orchestration is lusher than an oasis. It takes the Peter And The Wolf approach of blessing each character with a specific leitmotif and instrument that sticks in your head when you see them, a rarity these days. And dear sweet lord do they know how to wring every drop of emotion from you using those strings alone. It’s virtually perfect, right up there with the likes of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and the Bernstein and Newman dynasties. Apparently Shire took the job because he wanted to cut loose and have a little more fun with his usual work. And if this is him cutting back, then what he regularly puts out must be nothing short of divine inspiration.
But enough of my fawning. The first thing we see is Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) wide awake in bed staring at a sky full of stars.
Since Kansas this time around is more clearly set in the turn of the century, this means there’s no one to properly diagnose Dorothy with depression and possible PTSD since no one knew those things existed yet. Dorothy misses Oz dearly, no one believes her stories about it, and she has the nagging feeling that her friends there are in terrible trouble. It’s culminated in sleepless nights that leave her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry worried. Adding to their woes are their attempts at rebuilding their lives and home in the aftermath of the twister; as expected for any survivor of a natural disaster, it’s no cakewalk.
Piper Laurie doesn’t have much screen time, but boy does she nail this movie’s Aunt Em. Bearing the heavy responsibility of her family and farm has taken a toll on her, yet she weathers through her daily routines with an almost proud stubbornness. She clearly cares about her poor niece’s state, even though she spurns her tales of Oz as little more than imaginary nonsense. The novelization expands on this by detailing how her worries about Dorothy has caused her to even question her faith. Considering her delicate Christian sensibilities stopped her from cussing out the local Scrooge the last time we saw her, that’s kind of a big deal.
The only slight issue I have is that I saw Carrie for the first time a few years ago, and now I can’t help but imagine Aunt Em threatening to lock Dorothy in the prayer closet whenever she brings up Oz. She comes pretty close too: Dorothy and her chicken Billina discover a key bearing the OZ initials in the farmyard, but Aunt Em willfully refuses to listen and forces her niece to denounce Oz’s existence.
Em and Henry find something that could be a solution to Dorothy’s woes in the newspaper – a doctor in the next town over advertising a brand new special kind of healing…through electricity.
In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s exactly what you think it is, and I’ll get to it soon.
Em takes Dorothy to the doctor against the girl’s better judgement, especially when she’s told she has to leave Toto behind. They should both know by now that no good ever comes from separating Dorothy from her trusted canine companion. After a trip through the desolate Kansas countryside, they meet Dr. Worley, played by Nicol Williamson. I’m ashamed to confess that it took me several viewings to recognize him as the same great actor who portrayed Merlin in Excalibur and covered the Hobbit audiobook.
Williamson plays Worley as a warm, fatherly figure; a tad patronizing but assured in his mastery of modern marvels like electricty. He gives perhaps the most nuanced and enjoyable performance as both Worley and his Oz counterpart, the Nome King. Murch made a wise decision in keeping the double-casting from The Wizard of Oz. Reflections are a powerful recurring motif in Return To Oz, both in the literal sense with mirrors and reflective surfaces and in the psychological sense. If Oz itself is a mirror to our world, then the Nome King, Mombi and the Wheelers are all darker but truer reflections of Worley and his staff. Characters aren’t the only things that carry over from the “real” world, either; objects and certain key phrases do as well. There are SO many details from the Kansas scenes that are cleverly incorporated into the Oz scenes that I’m tempted to stop the review in its tracks to list them all. While Oz was meant to be real in the books and implied to be a dream the 1939 film (though I certainly don’t believe that), Walter Murch intentionally leaves it up to individual interpretation; Oz could be real, or it could very well be a manifestation of Dorothy’s subconscious fears and symbols. There’s plenty of evidence that supports both ideas.
Dorothy shows Worley the key, which she’s convinced her friends in Oz sent to her via a shooting star she wished on the night before, and tells him about her adventures there.
Dr. Worley insists that his machine is just the thing to cheer up Dorothy and remove those “bad dreams” of Oz from her head. He even plays up his device as a mechanical man with a funny face to try to win the girl over. It’s enough to convince Aunt Em that he’s a man to be trusted, though Dorothy sees right through him. But when he turns his back on her to discuss it with Aunt Em, Dorothy sees a blonde girl (Emma Ridley) looking back at her instead of her reflection. She smiles at Dorothy, then vanishes as quickly as she came with no one else noticing her.
Aunt Em leaves Dorothy at the clinic overnight with the promise that she’ll return with Toto the following morning. Once she’s gone, Dorothy’s new caretakers show their true colors. Then again that’s not saying much considering how obviously evil the rest of the staff is. Just look at Head Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh).
Wilson takes away Dorothy’s lunch pail and leaves her in a decrepit old room by herself for the entire day. The girl also hears shrieks from somewhere in the house, which Wilson denies. As Dorothy stares out the window, she catches a reflection of the same girl from earlier, only this time she’s really in the room with her. The girl brings Dorothy a gift: a small jack-o-lantern to remind her Halloween is approaching. She hears Wilson coming and promises to return for Dorothy later. What I love about this scene is it’s more than some foreshadowing for a handful of characters, it’s a thematic symbol with enormous weight. Jack-o-lanterns are a Halloween tradition carried over from Ireland, though their reason for existing has been muddled through the centuries: they either ward off malevolent spirits, represent the spirits themselves, or serve as guides to lost souls in purgatory. All three of these apply here – as a way to protect Dorothy from the ill will of the clinic staff, to show that the mystery waif is no hallucination, and as a way to guide Dorothy, who herself is a lost soul trapped in an emotional limbo, back to Oz.
Night falls and a storm brews outside, the perfect night for a mad scientist to perform a dastardly experiment. By a stunning coincidence, Dr. Worley and Nurse Wilson strap Dorothy down and prepare her for her first electroshock session. Look, I’ve got nothing against ECT; if you’re one of the millions of people who suffers from a disorder and this is the only thing that provides you with some relief and clarity, I’m happy for you. The problem is that this is an early, dangerous, experimental version of that procedure administered by a pseudoscientific quack who views his patients less as human beings in need of real medical assistance and more like test subjects. Suffice it to say this movie doesn’t portray this treatment in the best light.
Worley and Wilson run a test of the ominous device while Dorothy can only watch in dread. Then, just as Worley flips the switch to give the girl the shock of her life, the power goes out.
Here’s the thing about the horror in Return To Oz. There’s little in the way of jumps scares, of which I am thankful for (not just because they’re heart attacks waiting to happen but because they’re dreadfully overused these days). The real terror comes from the tension in scenes such as these, always building to an unbearable height, helped by an uneasy, dreamlike atmosphere that teeters between familiar yet uncanny and pure fantasy nightmare. But when that tension climaxes and something scary does happen, it takes you for one hell of a thrill ride.
Worley goes to fix the breakers while Wilson tends to that pesky screaming in the basement. Dorothy is left alone in the dark. Thankfully she’s rescued by the girl from before, who reveals the screams are patients Worley locked up after they were “damaged” by his experiments.
Wilson catches the girls escaping and chases them out into the storm. They fall into a nearby swollen river. Dorothy manages to scramble on to an old crate while the other girl’s fate is unknown. She succumbs to exhaustion as she’s carried out to sea.
Dorothy wakes up the following morning stranded on the outskirts of a rocky desert and a green field. Also Billina is inexplicably with her, and she can talk now (voiced by Denise Bryer, puppeteered by Mak Wilson). Billina’s new personality is wry, occasionally sarcastic, and a welcome addition since it gives Dorothy someone to talk to. Dorothy figures they must be near Oz since animals can speak there (guess nobody told that to poor Toto). But that means the desert they’re in is the Deadly Desert, named not for its vast size but because anyone who touches it turns to sand. So Dorothy plays the deadliest game of “The Floor is Lava” ever and takes five with Billina under a lunch pail tree on the other side. But even this happy moment has an undercurrent of tension as something watches the two in secret.
This thing that spies on Dorothy and Billina is a Nome. Not a gnome, there’s a difference. I suppose Baum, Murch and the rest of the filmmakers wanted people to hear or see the word and have them think this…
…rather than this.
The nomes’ effects are done in Claymation by the late great Will Vinton. Nearly thirty-five years later and they still look fantastic. The nomes move through the rock itself like water, fitting since they’re creatures made of the same stuff. The stops are pulled out when it comes to the creativity in the animation, from the near-formless face of the messenger nome whose expressions morph from whatever surface it inhabits, to the doorways of the Nome King’s palace, which are a mass of hands that pull the earth apart bit by bit. It’s that flawless combination of ingenuity and skill with this now-underutilized medium that gives us another reason to appreciate this film.
The nome reports Dorothy’s arrival to the Nome King. The king is kept offscreen for most of the film, which makes his reveal in the third act that more impactful. He is enraged upon hearing that a chicken accompanied Dorothy to Oz (for reasons that will be made clear eventually), but is confident that neither of them will get past his right-hand witch, Mombi.
Dorothy and Billina journey to the Emerald City to visit the Scarecrow, who’s ruled Oz as its king since the Wizard’s departure. Along the way they find the first farmhouse that crash-landed on the Wicked Witch of the East. But there are no Munchkins (or Munchkinland either, just a whole lot of woods), and the yellow brick road is ripped up. Needless to say Dorothy is concerned. She follows it and discovers the Emerald City is in ruins, as well as completely emerald-free. All the citizens have been turned to stone, even the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. It’s less “Merry Old Land of Oz” and more spooky abandoned graveyard/theme park. I half-expect Adam The Woo to come snooping around.
The city’s not as deserted as it seems, however. Not long after Dorothy finds a warning about “wheelers” scrawled on a wall, the creatures themselves roll out to chase her and Billina around.
Silly as the Wheelers look, I can see why kids would be scared of them. Their maniacal laughter, freaky movements, large numbers, thirst for violence and wonky design (which is what you get when you marathon Mad Max and Pee Wee’s Playhouse during a drug-fueled bender) is enough to unsettle most children.
The Wheelers corner Dorothy and Billina in an alley that has an inconspicuous keyhole-shaped crevice in the wall. At Billina’s urging, Dorothy tries her key and opens a hidden chamber. The two barricade themselves in while the Wheelers continue to prowl outside. Also stuck in there with them is a rotund little clockwork man activated by three wind-up keys (each one reserved for thinking, speech and action respectively) labeled “The Royal Army of Oz”. Dorothy starts him up and he introduces himself as Tik-Tok. When the Emerald City fell under attack, The Scarecrow locked in Tik-Tok with instructions to wait for Dorothy. Good thing she showed up when she did or this could have been another Spinel situation. Tik-Tok promises to be Dorothy’s bodyguard and she ensures he’s all wound up before they go.
Tik-Tok is one of my favorite characters in the film and in the Oz series. He has the distinction of being one of the first robots in literature, and some consider him the prototype for most fictional robots. This is the first character Dorothy meets in Oz who is a refreshingly genuine friend, one who I wouldn’t mind having around in a jam. He’s friendly, loyal, wise and polite, if occasionally blunt towards those he views as less intelligent than he; though he insists that he’s not alive and will never be burdened with annoyances that come from life like emotions, “thank goodness”. I love his design, a combination of classic steampunk and a World War One soldier, and the way he stomps around just makes me laugh. Nowadays he’d be mostly if not entirely CGI. In keeping with physical practicality, his head movements were controlled via remote, and his body by a performer who had to be folded into him upside-down!
The Wheelers return and Tik-Tok takes them out singlehandedly with Dorothy’s lunch pail.
Tik-Tok forces the Head Wheeler to take them to their boss, Princess Mombi, so they can learn what’s happened to the Scarecrow and the Emerald City. She’s residing in the former palace, most likely because her vanity wouldn’t let her pass up living in a throne room made entirely of mirrors, no matter how dilapidated the rest of the place is. I’ve already mentioned how phenomenal the score is, but there’s some excellent foreshadowing in this particular scene. Every instrument that’s featured in the music thus far has been traditional. The mandolin Mombi plays is the first electronic instrument to appear, which clues us in that something is off about her.
Mombi isn’t prepared for company and goes to put her face on – literally. See, Mombi has a whole stash of living, breathing heads she swaps out with her own based on her mood.
Having switched over to a new head, Mombi informs Dorothy that the Nome King took the Scarecrow and all the emeralds of the Emerald City back to his mountain, and transformed everyone living into stone. She notices the girl has the potential to get “ahead” of her in beauty and decides to imprison Dorothy until she’s grown up enough to join her hall of heads. Tik-Tok marches to the rescue but his action winds down and leaves him frozen. Mombi locks Dorothy and Billina in the attic. Here they have a clear view of the Nome King’s mountain across the desert, and also meet the next member of their crew.
This is Jack Pumpkinhead, puppeteered and voiced by Brian Henson, son of Jim. Jack was his first gig, and the start of an illustrious career in his father’s footsteps. There’s a great blend of puppetry and body work on display. His mouth doesn’t move on account of budget cuts, but it doesn’t distract from Brian’s performance and Jack’s charm. His expressions come through the vocal inflections and the subtle movements of his head (it noticeably stretches whenever he’s excited or scared, which gives him a nice animated touch).
As for Jack himself, well, he’s so adorable. He is “d’aawww” personified. He’s a sweet innocent child who was virtually born yesterday and is looking for someone to call mom. Not surprisingly, Dorothy agrees to be his surrogate mother (who wouldn’t?) Jack tells her his original “mom”, a girl who was Mombi’s slave, created him as part of a trick she played on her cruel mistress. Instead of destroying him in one of her usual rages, Mombi used Jack to test a magical powder that can bring inanimate objects to life. The girl vanished soon after, no doubt spirited away by Mombi as punishment.
Dorothy takes an interest in this life-giving powder since it could be their ticket out of there. Jack picks the lock, and Dorothy sends Tik-Tok upstairs with him while she sneaks into Mombi’s room to fetch the powder. Jack and Tik-Tok begin assembling a flying creature from furniture stored in the attic, including the mounted head of a moose-like animal called a Gump. The process is comically hampered, however, when Tik-Tok’s thinking runs down and he spouts nonsense. Meanwhile, Dorothy finds the powder after a tense search through Mombi’s bedroom, but comes face to face with her original head – Nurse Wilson’s.
Mombi sounds the alarm by bellowing Dorothy’s name in a demonic drone, all the decapitated heads wake up and start screaming, Mombi’s headless body rises up like Frankenstein’s monster, and Dorothy flees in wide-eyed terror amid the roars of brass. I completely understand why anyone would be terrified of this scene regardless of age; it is unleaded nightmare fuel.
A hazy reflection of a familiar girl helps Dorothy escape through the hall of mirrors. She restores Tik-Tok’s sanity while paraphrasing an appropriate line from the first film (“If his brain’s run down, how can he talk?” “It happens to people all the time, Jack.”) Dorothy sprinkles the magic glitter on the Gump and it springs to life once she reads the incantation. You may have noticed by now that each of Dorothy’s new companions corresponds to the ones from her first adventure (Tik-Tok’s the Tin Man, Jack is the Scarecrow, Billina is Toto). The Gump, however, isn’t so much the Cowardly Lion of the group as he is like Eeyore, a good-natured if gloomy old soul who goes about everything reluctantly. Considering the last thing he remembers before coming alive is his own sudden death, I don’t blame him for this outlook. The Gump takes off in the nick of time and everyone joyously celebrates their getaway.
When the Wheelers fail to recapture the group, Mombi forces them to pull her chariot through an underground passage so she can warn the Nome King of Dorothy (and Billina’s) invasion. The next day the Gump falls apart in midair and crashes on the mountain. The Nome King is startled by their arrival – he wanted Mombi to bring Dorothy to him as part of his scheme, but he didn’t expect the girl to make her own way there. Dorothy remembers the Head Wheeler mentioning that his majesty doesn’t allow chickens, and quickly hides Billina in Jack’s head as the rocky monarch himself greets them.
Again, I have to hand it to the animation and Williamson’s performance that really bring the Nome King to life. There’s little pauses in his speech, not enough to feel like William Shatner took over, more like the king’s so devoid of empathy that he has to figure out how to emphasize certain words to keep pulling off the appearance of a corteous monarch.
Dorothy threatens to sic her army on the Nome King if he doesn’t release the Scarecrow. The Nome King’s laughter over this precocious display causes an earthquake and Dorothy falls through the cracks into his underground domain. Her descent is less perilous plummeting and more floating down the rabbit hole, if the rabbit hole was taken over by the Dr. Who intro. As Dorothy saunters vaguely downwards, the Nome King tells her that he views the world’s precious stones that are grown in his kingdom as his. Despite having so many, it angers him when someone digs beneath the earth and steals some. He kidnapped the Scarecrow since he blames him for the theft of his emeralds. Dorothy reunites with her straw-filled friend only for the Nome King to abruptly vanish him. Just to torment her further, the king thanks her for reminding him to dole out the Scarecrow’s punishment, transformation into a lifeless ornament for his collection.
I haven’t given myself the chance to talk about Fairuza Balk as Dorothy yet, so now is as good a time as any. Hers is a very different take on the character than her predecessors: frank, capable of taking in most of the weirdness around her without blinking, and a good deal more courageous, assertive and clever. She’s wiser than many of the adults but doesn’t try to act like one. She pulls it off wonderfully, especially when you remember most of the scenes call for her to act around puppets and creatures that aren’t really there. There are even a few moments where her cadence is similar to Judy Garland’s, a nice subtle throwback to the reigning Dorothy these past eighty years. Though the film calls for her to be anxious and despondent most of the time, she doesn’t make it a drag. Her innate charm shines through the gloom. Only now, when her oldest friend whom she’s gone through hell and high water for is snatched away moments within reach, does she break down, and it’s heart-wrenching.
Moved by Dorothy’s tears, the Nome King invites her and her friends to play a game that can win the Scarecrow back if they succeed. They have three chances to find the ornament he’s turned into; all they have to do is touch the right ornament and say “Oz”. What he fails to mention is that if they lose, they’ll be transformed into ornaments as well. They learn this after the Gump doesn’t come back from his turn. Dorothy protests that isn’t fair but the Nome King tells them if they don’t like it they can go to
hell his fiery furnace.
The group, barring Dorothy, is picked off one by one. With each loser, the Nome King’s appearance changes: he gains more form and detail until he goes from stop-motion figure to Nicol Williamson in full makeup.
Through this metamorphosis, the Nome King’s endgame is slowly revealed – when there’s no one left who remembers Oz, he’ll be completely human and at the height of his power. And right here is where we see a fascinating parallel in the Nome King and Worley that links the two beyond their shared actor. Worley deserts his humanity for delusional ambitions of grandeur through his electrical devices, analyzing everything coldly as if he were a machine himself.
On the flip side, the Nome King wants to leave behind his stony form and become human, even attempting to act like one to mask his absolute sociopathy. Both men abandon their nature in pursuit of power, and lose their hearts and minds in the process.
As Dorothy waits for her turn, the Nome King twists the knife by revealing what gave him the power to conquer Oz – the ruby slippers. They fell off her feet as she flew home to Kansas and landed on his mountain, which makes her feel horribly responsible for everything that’s happened. The effect is kind of ruined, however, when he shows that he’s wearing the slippers under his robes the whole time. I’m not one to judge what men want to wear (and I know a few guys who can rock a pair of stilettos), but when your formidable evil overlord displays bright red glittery pumps with little bows on his feet, it kills some of his menace.
A nome notifies his majesty that Tik-Tok froze in the middle of his guessing. The Nome King suggests that Dorothy go wind up her friend and take her turn when he’s done. But then he makes her one final offer: he can send her back to Kansas immediately using the ruby slippers, but she must give up all her memories of Oz and her friends.
If we’re viewing this movie from the “Oz is Dorothy’s symbolic quest to defeat her depression” angle, then this scene marks a crucial turning point. Far too often when we make a poor decision or find ourselves in a low place, we wish we could erase the bad memories associated with it and return to the life we had beforehand. But would that give us the peace of mind we crave? Though it varies depending on the person and situation, the answer is usually no. To erase the bad in our lives would also mean erasing the good that came from it. True, Dorothy’s struggles were terrifying, but she came out of them stronger and with more friends to show for it.
Like the first time around, Dorothy has the power to change everything within her the whole time. The Nome King is aware of this and does all he can to convince her to turn back. He tells Dorothy point blank that her friends are beyond saving, so why keep up the fight? He even taunts her with that famous line, “There’s no place like home!” That little reminder of the safe familiarity of home is almost enough to get her to consider it…but when it’s used ironically as the Nome King does, it also alludes to the reason why she’s back in Oz in the first place.
That is the clincher.
Dorothy’s not the type to let her friends suffer on her behalf. And there’s nothing to look forward to in Kansas without dreams of a better place or the knowledge that she has good friends beyond those borders, even if no one listens to her about them. So, Dorothy takes the terrifying, noble leap that few make and opts for what’s right over what’s easy – for her friends, but most importantly, for herself. No more faking normalcy for everyone else’s sake, or turning to some magical mystery “cure” or pretending as if the whole ordeal never happened. Instead, she chooses to confront her fears head-on with the people she cares about alongside her.
Into the game, she goes.
Dorothy finds Tik-Tok only pretending to be wound down. He wanted to get her in the room with him and see what he’s changed into so she might have an advantage. Tik-Tok worries that he isn’t smart enough to pull it off since he’s guessed incorrectly so far. Dorothy comforts him with a hug, which Tok-Tok returns while crying green tears: proof that he isn’t the unfeeling hunk of copper he claims to be.
Tik-Tok makes his final guess, and he disappears in a blinding flash of light. But since Dorothy couldn’t see what his ornament form is, his entire scheme is rendered pointless.
Mombi arrives while Dorothy begins guessing. Her first moment with the Nome King is great. He calls for her to kneel in his presence, and she does. He demands she goes lower, and she prostrates herself until she’s flat on the ground. “LOWER!” he thunders, and laughs as she tries to grovel even further into the floor. In spite of the princess’ narcissistic pretensions, the Nome King’s the one who calls the shots.
Mombi asks why the Nome King didn’t just transform everyone at once and he answers “It’s more fun this way!” It’s this type of classic Bond villainy that sows the seeds of his downfall, but I do miss having villains like this; relishing every moment of their evilness that they’re so assured of their victory. As Dorothy comes down to her final guess, she decides it’s best to leave it up to chance and goes with the first ornament she finds with her eyes closed, a green paperweight.
And wonder of wonders, she makes the right choice.
I like how the Scarecrow looks, very faithful to most iterations of his character, though the face is a bit off. It’s like a weird prototype for the talking character masks at Disney World. Sometimes the mouth moves when he speaks, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s even a few times where it moves when he’s not speaking at all. Like Jack, the reason for this is budgetary, but I wish they had kept it a bit more consistent.
Dorothy figures out that everyone from Oz must be transformed into green knickknacks. As she and the Scarecrow release more of their friends, the Nome King regresses through his rocky manifestations, all while his rage and sanity grow more unhinged. The frightened Wheelers abandon Mombi while they’re able, but the Nome King in his madness declares the witch a traitor and traps her in a cage to finish her later. He barges into the ornament room, and all Hell breaks loose.
Oh, you thought I was kidding when I said the Nome King said they could go to Hell? This is Hell. Fire and blazing red caverns, bloodthirsty monsters everywhere, and ruled by a giant evil overlord. I know James Rolfe made a parody video about a 3rd Wizard of Oz movie called “Dorothy Goes To Hell” based on what happens in this film, but she already went there the one time and this is it.
The Nome King resolves to eliminate his enemies for good by straight up eating them. Dorothy and her friends try to escape the chamber but he summons the nomes to block off their exit and chase them back. And hot damn, the claymation is at its most monstrous and awesome at this moment.
With his victims right where he wants them, the King swallows the Gump’s sofa body and grabs Jack next. With the most pure character about to be killed before their helpless eyes, it looks as though they’re finished. Doomed. Done-diddly-un for.
But the Nome King stops at the sound of Billina’s squawking. In her fright, Billina lays an egg which drops out of Jack’s head and down the King’s throat.
Ah yes, are you ready to know why the Nome King hates chickens so much?
It turns out that chicken eggs are poisonous to nomes and are the only things that can kill them.
So the Nome King simply shuffles off his marble coil leaving everyone in peace, right? If it were that simple, then there’d be less much less ado about this movie giving kids nightmares than there is now. The Nome King doesn’t just drop dead, no no no. He decays from the inside out.
Groaning and screaming all the while.
A sparkle among the Nome King’s rubble catches Dorothy’s eye – the ruby slippers, completely unharmed. She whips them on and uses them to transport everyone, even Mombi, back to Oz as the cavern collapses. They safely poof outside the Emerald City; its buildings and citizens are in the middle of being restored. This exuberant moment is tinged with sorrow since the group couldn’t find Tik-Tok before they escaped. Then Billina spots an emerald badge stuck on the Gump’s antlers, and Dorothy changes it back into their beloved robot companion.
Everyone is welcomed back into the Emerald City with a triumphant procession to the palace. My favorite thing about this scene apart from the overall cheer is that every character that appears in the background are right from the books – The Munchkins, the Patchwork Girl, the Shaggy Man, General Jinjur, the Woggle-Bug, and much, much more. It’s awesome seeing these overlooked characters on film. Anyone who’s an extreme fan of Baum’s Oz will be well-serviced.
With all set right at last, the Ozians beg Dorothy to be their new queen. But Dorothy turns them down since she’s hit with another bout of homesickness. I’d say she should forget about Kansas after how crummy it turned out to be after returning there the first time, but based on the previous events a little dull normalcy is more than welcome. The novelization also touches on this; while Dorothy is trapped in Mombi’s attic she recalls her last visit to Oz wasn’t as rosy as she remembered what with the flying monkeys and other Wicked Witches she had to deal with.
Dorothy sadly wishes she could be in both both places at once, and the ruby slippers’ glow points towards one of the mirrors. Instead of her reflection, she sees the girl who helped her escape Worley’s clinic, now dressed like a princess.
Dorothy pulls the girl out of the mirror and Jack recognizes her as his original mom, Ozma, the lost princess and rightful ruler of Oz. She was made Mombi’s slave when her father King Pastoria died before the Wizard’s arrival; when the Nome King promised Mombi a bunch of beautiful interchangeable heads and dominance over the Emerald City if she kept Ozma a secret, Mombi cast the princess into the mirror. This unintentionally gave Ozma the power to reach Dorothy on the other side of the looking glass to Kansas as it were. Ozma is graceful about the whole ordeal, since Mombi’s been stripped of her magic offscreen and is her prisoner now.
Ozma sends Dorothy home with the ruby slippers on the condition that she looks in on her every now and then. If Dorothy ever wants to come back to Oz, all she has to do is say the word. After a quick, tearful goodbye to her friends (and Billina, who’s elected to stay), Dorothy wakes up on the riverbank and reunites with a search party led by Toto, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. Em informs Dorothy lightning struck the clinic, and everyone was rescued except for Worley when he ran back in to save his precious electrical torture devices. When his and Nurse Wilson’s treachery was discovered, she was arrested. Dorothy watches in awe as the woman is hauled away in a tiny cart eerily similar to Mombi’s cage.
Dorothy and her family return home. The farm, as if mirroring her state of mind, is brighter and fixed up again in no time. As Dorothy dresses herself for the day, she reaches out to Oz through her mirror. Ozma and Billina appear in the reflection. She calls for Aunt Em to come see, but Ozma shushes her – some people just aren’t meant to know about Oz. Dorothy backtracks and cheerfully goes outside to play.
So Dorothy and Toto happily run around the farm as the film closes out with the best piece in the entire score, the sweeping end credits suite. I’m speechless when it comes to this. Few musical strains move me to tears every time.
If not’s clear by now, I adore Return To Oz. This and The Wizard of Oz are among my all-time favorite movies, but it feels unfair to compare the two to each other since they’re entirely different films that I love for varying reasons. It’s darker and moodier than its predecessor but also exciting, fun, creative, and filled with great performances. You can watch it as its own movie, a continuation of the original fantasy novel or film, or a psychological look at a young girl grappling with her depression. The overall vibes and thrills makes it one of those films I have to pop in every fall, especially on the days leading up to Halloween.
Some have complained that the film is too bleak to enjoy, but there is happiness to be found between the moments of fear: in the flight of the Gump, the tender moments between Dorothy, Jack, Tik-Tok and Billina, the celebration in the Emerald City, Dorothy’s rescue of the Scarecrow, Tik-Tok’s defeat of the Wheelers, and more. Like the previous movie I discussed, Return To Oz bravely trusts its audience with heavier, frightening material. Unsurprisingly, it’s earned a strong cult classic status. I can only hope that future generations that discover it overcome their fears and give it the status of full-fledged classic that it deserves. (And by all means get the complete soundtrack from Intrada. You’ll thank the heavenly muses you did.)
Surprise! I was going to put Return To Oz on the list of films to vote for this month’s review, but Amelia Jones donated $25 to the Fair Fight Immigrant Bond (the charity donation event is still going on, by the way) and since I promised that anyone who gave that much could request a review of their choice, she asked if I could look at this movie. I didn’t want to wait until after Halloween or too long after The Wizard of Oz’s anniversary, so I wrote most of it alongside the Coraline review but life and work got in the way for a while. Thanks for being so patient!
For more info on Return to Oz, I highly recommend you visit the long-running fansite waltdisneysreturntooz.com, one very old but informative Angelfire site that discusses the making of the film and its symbolism, and, if you can find it, the documentary Return to Oz: The Joy That Got Away.
Anyway, thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon supporters get perks such as extra votes and adding movies of their choice to the Shelf. If I can get to $100, I can go back to making weekly tv show reviews. As of now I’m only $20 away from reaching that goal! Special thanks to Amelia Jones, Gordhan Rajani and Sam Minden for their generous contributions.
You can vote for whatever movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at email@example.com. Remember, unless you’re a Patreon supporter, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
Artwork by Charles Moss. Screencaps courtesy of animationscreencaps.com
* – I wrote this analogy before the brief debacle between Disney and Sony where it looked like Spider-Man would be pulled from the MCU, but since that’s been smoothed over and I couldn’t think of a better comparison in the meantime, it stays in the review.